IN THE LAST TWENTY-FIVE years, mock trials have become a staple of instruction in law, government, and civics classes. Mock trials are an exciting way to teach trial court procedures and to develop a wide range of skills. They also provide a positive opportunity for students to interact with a person from the justice system. In addition, mock trials help students develop a context for understanding television trials, which they learn may have more to do with entertainment than with what happens in an actual courtroom. Participation in mock trials also teaches students about the importance of serving on juries, a fundamental obligation of American citizenship. As evidence of their popularity, mock trial tournaments in most states lead up to a national tournament, which is held in a different state each year. (1)
What many students in mock trial programs do not learn is that other important and engaging legal proceedings begin after the trial ends. These proceedings are called appellate hearings; when simulated, they are called moot courts. Many moot court activities are simulations of oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. In moot courts, as in appellate hearings, the participants accept the facts that were developed at the trial. The focus of the appellate hearing is on the legal or constitutional issues arising out of the trial decision. For example, at a criminal trial, the finder of fact will determine whether the defendant is guilty of the crime charged. But in an appeal of that trial, the focus is on a legal or constitutional question. For example, was the evidence used at the trial seized in violation of the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights? When a trial court renders a verdict, it makes an impact on all the parties involved. When an appellate court issues a legal opinion, it requires other lower courts in the state (state Supreme Court opinions), in a region (the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal), or in the entire country (the U.S. Supreme Court opinions) to follow that opinion.
Whereas mock trials require student mastery of trial court procedures and roles of evidence (which can be complex even when simplified), the procedure for a moot court is simple and straightforward, giving students time to learn about legal and constitutional issues.
Benefits for Students
By participating in moot courts, students wrestle with persistent public policy questions and come to better understand the role that the judicial branch plays in our democratic system. Abstract principles, such as the right to privacy, become real when students argue whether the police, in searching someone's trash for evidence of illegal drugs, have violated reasonable search conditions under the Fourth Amendment.
Students playing the role of attorneys in moot courts learn to think on their feet while formulating and articulating persuasive arguments based on legal precedents and constitutional concepts. Students playing the role of judges (or justices) prepare and ask penetrating questions in pursuit of reasoned responses from counsel to arrive at a decision. Student justices must also consider the impact that their decisions will have on public policy and on the public at large. Participating in moot courts, students gain a deeper understanding of legal and constitutional issues, acquire important standards-based social studies knowledge, practice critical analysis, and examine historical and current issues in ways that foster civic literacy.
Resources from the justice system can help students prepare for the moot court activity. Lawyers, judges, and law students bring specialized knowledge of law and appellate procedure to the class and enjoy the opportunity to work with young people. A reporter who covers the courts could also visit the class to work with those students who take on the role of journalist. In addition to assisting students with the preparation of the moot court, it is helpful to have these guests observe the activity, offer feedback and answer questions. …